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Chief Keef, Nas & Hip-Hop’s Album Rating Fallacy

Posted by Dharmic X on 01/14/13 | Filed under Top Stories, Opinion, Overlooked
As RefinedHype Nation knows by now, every Monday I review an album that didn't receive enough exposure. The goal of "Overlooked" is to put people onto a body of work they otherwise might not have even heard about. At the same time, I’ve been using this column as an opportunity to hone a new craft: the art of critically listening to an album from start to finish, repeatedly, and offer commentary on it that is enlightening, honest, and fair.

Album reviews have been the norm for magazines and publications for decades at this point, and they tend to be highly controversial and divisive. However, the source of contention usually has little to do with the writing itself, but rather, the number or metric system attached to the review.

To me, attaching a number or a letter “grade” to a body of work has always been unnerving. It is an easy target for people to attack my taste in music and my “authenticity,” a very important element in hip-hop culture (especially if you spend a lot of time in New York City’s underground scene).

In the last couple of weeks, Spin Magazine has been embroiled in controversy over the rating they gave Chief Keef’s "Finally Rich". In particular, one blogger has been very vocal about attacking Spin, the writer of the review, and ultimately, hipster writers in general. You would think that with the album being released in mid-February (and only selling 50,000 copies in its first week) that the controversy would have long since subsided by now. But due to timing, the fire was further fanned by the absence of any full-length release - if you know of a project that came out in the last week, let me know - and the need for journalists and bloggers to start the year off by debating the best and worst releases of 2012.

So here we are, nearly one month after the album came out, and we’re still arguing over whether or not "Finally Rich" deserved a higher rating than "Life is Good".

Why do these ratings matter?

Let’s ignore the fact that Spin’s writer claimed that Chief Keef “made one of the best rap albums of the year, and one of the best major label debuts in recent memory” in the same year that Kendrick Lamar released "Good Kid Maad City". Let’s ignore the fact that Spin Magazine is almost never used in any conversation about hip-hop, whether it’s on Twitter or in the barbershop. And let’s ignore the fact that the main critic of the growing trend of hipster tastemakers in hip-hop and the ramifications of this trend has no shame.

Who cares about these album ratings?

When I was in high school, I used to go to HipHopDX’s album review section, read their thoughts on Slaughterhouse or "The Last Kiss", and either agree or disagree with them based on my own thoughts after listening to the album myself. I never claimed to be an expert, but as the person fully in control of what I was listening to (thanks to my iPod and my computer), I was going to have the final say over what was worthy of purchasing or what was going to be ignored outside of the singles and videos.

I didn’t buy "Only Built for Cuban Linx II" because HipHopDX gave it 4.5 Stars; I bought the album because this was the sequel to one of hip-hop’s seminal 90s albums and the leaks leading up to the release were incredible. The fact that DX shared my opinion was extra validation that my ears were not deceiving me, but even if DX had thought it to be a subpar album, I was likely going to buy it.

In the era of declining album sales and “brand building,” hip-hop fans are often buying albums to “support” their favorite artists. They’ve had ample opportunity to sample the music (or its offshoots) in the months building up to the release, and some have even bootlegged the album and listened to it before purchasing. When there is direct access to music, few people are going to wait for a rating from XXL or the Source to sway them into buying a project.

I’m not alone in this thought process. An informal survey on Twitter revealed at least five people who share a similar sentiment. And if you actually DO base your album purchases on review ratings, please chime in below.

Besides, there is just too many releases to even make sense of a rating system, even within the genre of hip-hop, a genre which has now broken down into various “lanes.” One look at HipHopDX’s ratings reveals that Masta Killa’s recent album, "Selling My Soul", has received the same rating as "Finally Rich". How on Earth do you even go about comparing the two head-to-head?

So with all of that in mind, when Nathan asked me to consider introducing a rating system to "Overlooked", my response was an emphatic, “No.” Not only are these rating systems arbitrary, useless to consumers, and devoid of a proper standard, but the criteria of "Overlooked" itself would further muddle the picture. There’s a reason why I didn’t review "Good Kid Maad City" or "Rare Chandeliers", and it wasn’t because I thought they were wack.

Rather than offer my own pseudo-standard for album quality, I want to just share my thoughts, and let the readers/listeners decide. Sound good?

See Also: Overlooked: 9th Wonder’s “Black American Gangster” (Album Review)

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